The recently concluded three-Test series against Sri Lanka was in the news for many reasons, right from the green top prepared at Kolkata to the air pollution in Delhi, which prompted the fielders of the visiting side to wear masks. As expected India won the series, though the 1-0 margin did not reflect the wide chasm that separated the two sides. For the Indian side, the most important take away from this series has been the brilliant form of skipper Virat Kohli who scored a century in the first Test followed by back to back double hundreds in the other two. At the end of the series, Kohli stood No.2 in rankings among Test batsmen and No.1 in One-Day Internationals and T20 Internationals. He stands a very good chance of topping the ranking in all formats of the game if he is able to maintain his good form with the willow during the tour of South Africa.
Kohli first shot into prominence as the captain of the Indian side that won the ICC under-19 World Cup in Malaysia in 2008. He was inducted into the national squad after the first IPL season where he played for Royal Challengers Bangalore. He did not exactly set the cricket world on fire during the first two seasons in the international circuit. He showed his mettle during the final of the 2011 World Cup by playing a polished innings of 35 off 49 balls. It was the third-wicket stand of 73 between Kohli and Gautam Gambhir that placed India on the path to a victory after the hosts had lost the wickets of Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar with only 31 runs on board.
Kohli made his Test debut against the West Indies at Kingston, Jamaica, during the tour that took place after the 2011 World Cup. However, he did not have a good series with the bat as he could score only a total of 76 runs in five completed innings. The West Indian fast bowlers exploited his weakness against the short-pitched ball and his footwork too appeared to be slightly unsure. At this stage there were serious doubts as to whether he would evolve from being a good limited overs batsman into one who could perform in the longer version of the game. He was dropped from the squad for the tour of England in the summer of 2011 and made his re-entry into the side during the last Test of the series at home against the West Indies towards the end of the year. A half-century in the last Test helped him seal his place for the tour of Australia that followed.
It was the series against Australia in 2011-12 that saw Kohli mature as a Test batsman. When he failed in the first two matches and in the first innings of the third Test, it appeared as if he would join the long line of Indian batsmen who failed to reach their potential at the Test level. However, just as critics were preparing to write him off, Kohli bounced back with an innings of 75 in the second innings of the third Test. This was followed by a brilliant maiden century of 116 in the last Test at Adelaide, which helped him establish in the side. He celebrated this by hitting an 86-ball 133 against Sri Lanka at Hobart in the limited overs tri-series that followed the Test series.
Kohli backed this up with a brilliant run during the Asia Cup in Dhaka that followed. After scoring a century (108) against Sri Lanka, Kohli reached sublime form to play a majestic innings of 183 against Pakistan, which helped India chase down the target of 330. He has continued his excellent form with the bat right through the years since 2012 and has, as on date, 52 international centuries to his credit - 20 in Test matches and 32 in ODIs. Except for one series against England in 2014 when James Anderson tied him up in knots with his swing and late movement, Kohli has scored runs against all types of bowling on all surfaces, in all formats of the game. One interesting feature is that 19 of his centuries in ODIs have been scored when India was chasing. He has hit the most number of centuries in ODIs after Tendulkar and looks set to break the record of the God of Cricket if he continues in his present form for another couple of years.
It was apparent that the selectors had earmarked Kohli for greater responsibilities when he was appointed as vice-captain of the national side for Asia Cup in 2012, immediately after the tour of Australia. Krishnamachari Srikkanth, who was the chairman of selectors, made it clear that his committee considered Kohli as captaincy material and hence made Dhoni's deputy. The Indian squad was going through a churning process at that point of time as the golden veterans who were part of the side announced their retirement one by one. Other contenders for captaincy such as Sehwag and Gambhir lost their place in the side soon, thus clearing his path for the top post.
An injury to Dhoni gave Kohli an opportunity to lead the national side during the ODI series against the West Indies in June, 2013. This was followed by him being appointed as captain of the side to tour Zimbabwe for the ODI series, when Dhoni pulled out again on account of injury. He led India for the first time in a Test match during the tour of Australia in 2014-15, when Dhoni pulled out of the first Test in Adelaide. He scored a century in each innings of the Test and his knock of 141 in the last innings of the match on the fifth day received lavish praise from the critics. India lost the Test narrowly, but Kohli’s aggressive approach when he led the chase looking for a win rather than playing for a draw was a revelation and endeared him to lovers of the game.
Dhoni announced that he was stepping down from captaincy after the third Test of the series against Australia in December, 2014, and Kohli was straightaway appointed as his replacement. However, he had to wait for another year-and-a-half before he could lead the national side in all formats of the game. He has so far captained India in 32 Tests, winning 20 and in 43 ODIs, out of which the Men in Blue emerged victorious in 33.
Kohli’s success with the bat and, more importantly, his style of batting have drawn comparisons with Tendulkar. At one point of time there were heated discussions in print and social media as to whether he is a better batsman than Tendulkar. No less a person than Viv Richards has gone on record stating that Kohli reminded him of himself! Martin Crowe, the former New Zealand skipper, found in Kohli the intensity of Rahul Dravid, the audacity of Sehwag and the extra ordinary range of Tendulkar.
Though his looks and mannerisms convey the image of an impulsive and arrogant young man, Kohli is remarkably old fashioned when it comes to planning an innings. He always makes it a point to take his time to settle down and seldom does one see him start off with a flurry of shots immediately after arriving at the crease. It is only after he has gauged the wicket and the bowlers to his satisfaction that he opens out. This requires tremendous amount of discipline and self control as given the range of strokes at his command, the temptation to go after the bowling would be huge. He also plays the ball very late, watching it till the last moment and thus allowing it to come to him rather than reaching out to it. Once he settles down there is no stopping him as he imposes himself on the bowlers with an authority that takes one’s breath away. His remarkable success during run chases can be attributed to the systematic manner in which he plans his innings.
As captain, Kohli has been a votary of positive cricket, always trying to play for a win. He belongs to the new generation of Indians who walk with a swagger and are not overawed or intimidated by the sight of fast bowlers and green tops. With very high confidence levels that run the risk of being termed as cocky and impudent, he exudes the aura of a skipper who believes that his side is the best in the world. While this approach is guaranteed to produce exciting cricket, this also runs the risk of ending up with the occasional setback, particularly in the longer duration of the game.
Kohli has grown sufficiently in stature to be counted as a cricketing icon, in the same league of Tendulkar and Dhoni. It is also interesting to note that each of these cricketing legends demonstrate the traits and represent the aspirations of the generations that they belong to. While Tendulkar was “Mr Perfect”, who represented the generation that came of age when the first phase of liberalization was sweeping across the country, Dhoni was the proverbial “Mr Cool Cat”, who belonged to the group that had developed sufficient self assurance to remain unfazed even in the gravest of crises. Kohli, as “Mr Aggression” represents the new breed of Indians, who are not humble about their origins or wealth and are on the look out for an opportunity for a good fight, if only to show how good they are.
The last couple of years have been remarkably good ones for Kohli, both as batsman and captain. During his phase, he had the good fortune of playing more matches at home than abroad and even the tours undertaken were not against very strong opponents. However, the coming year would see India touring South Africa, England and Australia, which would mean playing against strong sides in conditions favorable to them. Thus, 2018 would pose the toughest challenge yet to Kohli, the captain; this year would also determine whether he merits a place in the pantheon of great Indian skippers.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)